Mario Kvesić is a Star in Slovenia - What Went Wrong at Pohang?
As of the writing of this article, Mario Kvesić has been on fire for his new club, NK Olimpija Ljubljana. With help from football writer Richard Wilson, Pohang Steelers columnist Zeno Jo takes a look at how he has been performing in Slovenia's Prva Liga, a review of his Steelers career and what factors may have contributed to him hitting below expectations in Korea.
Who is Mario Kvesić?
Mario Kvesić is an attacking midfielder from Bosnia and Herzegovina and is a former youth international, having amassed 14 appearances across the U-17, U-19 and U-21 international teams. He was born in Široki Brijeg, a city located in modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina. He currently plays in the Prva Liga, Slovenia's first division, for NK Olimpija Ljubljana, where they have been crowned champions of the 2022-2023 season.
Before joining Pohang Steelers on a free transfer in March of 2021, Kvesić briefly played for his current employers, appearing in eight Prva Liga matches in November and December. His journeyman-like career has also seen him make stops in Germany, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Kvesić was brought in to fill the void of the recently-disbanded '1588' (일오팔팔 or Il-O-Pal-Pal), Pohang's foreign quartet of Stanislav Iljutcenko, Brandon O'Neil, Aleksandar Paločević and Manuel Palacios. Expectations were high, along with fellow newcomer Borys Tashchy.
Pohang's ties to Tashchy ran deep, as Sports Chosun reported in 2021. Interestingly, when the Steelers recruited Iljutcenko in June 2019, they had done so after the pursuit of their first option, fellow MSV Duisburg striker Borys Tashchy, had fallen apart.
When the signing of Kvesić was first made public, a Sports Khan article described him as a player that "suits Pohang's fast style of attack, even if he doesn't score or assist often."
That's a statement that may be hard to make as of the writing of this article, as Kvesić has scored 12 and assisted eight in the league, career-best numbers in both statistics. He's done so in a season that's hit above expectations for NK Olimpija.
Speaking on the season that Olimpija has had...
Kvesić the NK Olimpija player
The "Dragons" of NK Olimpija secured their first Slovenian Prva Liga title since the 2017-2018 season, the third in the club's 18-year history. They did so after a 2-0 home win against second-place NK Maribor, with five games still left to play in the season. A quest for the double is still on, as they are in the Slovenian Football Cup semifinal.
Sportswriter Richard Wilson is the host of the History of Yugoslav Football Podcast, which has been running since September 2019. Speaking on when Kvesić was at NK Olimpija before moving to Pohang, he said, "The often temporary nature of any player at the club tends to ensure expectations are kept to a minimum as well, particularly when Kvesic’s first spell at the club was so brief."
Wilson also detailed that NK Olimpija's attacking set-up has triangles that involve the full-back, an inverted winger and a central midfielder. This has meant that Kvesić can play as part of a central midfield trio or as a winger on the opposite side to meet play at the far post. He says, "Both these elements combined have meant his tally of goals and assists have been high given he's involved in all attacking phases of play and is expected to always be attacking pockets of space."
Kvesić the Pohang Steeler
It's hard to say what fans initially expected of Kvesić when he joined Pohang Steelers. There was the assessment that he was a player that could contribute effectively, even if his efforts didn't show up on the scoresheet, but it was uncharted territory.
Looking solely at past foreign players in his position, it was nearly impossible not to compare him to Aleksandar Palocevic. While Kvesić was not as technically gifted as Palocevic, who scored 19 and assisted 11 during his year-and-a-half loan at Pohang, he did present advantages in terms of speed and work rate.
Kvesić’s time at Pohang may have been influenced by a number of factors, one of the most important of those being the team surrounding him. The 2021 season saw heavy competition at his main positions. Lim Sang-hyub hit a double-digit goal tally for just the second time in his career at left wing and Go Young-joon blossomed into a mainstay in the squad with 43 appearances at left wing and attacking midfield.
This meant that Kvesić often had to play either out of position or in a role that he was not used to playing. Perhaps his most famous match as a Steeler came in the club's AFC Champions League semifinal win over fierce rivals Ulsan Hyundai. He was listed as an attacking midfielder in the team's starting eleven, but his average position reveals that he played mostly on the right side and in a more defensive area, playing as deep as defensive midfielders Lee Soo-bin and Shin Kwang-hoon.
The average position of Pohang Steelers in their match against Champions League semifinal match Ulsan Hyundai (left) and Kvesic's (8) heatmap (right). Credit: Sofascore
Kim Gi-dong's decision to use Mario Kvesić as a defensive winger has received plaudits, the Bosnian's play even drawing some over the top comparisons to Korean legend Park Ji-sung (see below). His efforts helped to shut down a dangerous Ulsan attack that included Valeri Qazaishvili, Yoon Bit-garam and Seol Young-woo. Ulsan's go-ahead goal would eventually come from their right-sided attack, but Pohang's equalizer, an Alex Grant header that arched above and away from Ulsan keeper Jo Hyeon-woo, was assisted by none other than Mario Kvesić.
While the comparison to "Three-Lung" Park is an audacious one, it's one that shows that Kvesić could be used like a Swiss Army knife in a number of positions for Pohang. It can also be said that Kvesić was more effective in different areas of the pitch in comparison to the left wing or attacking midfield where he has found the most success in his career.
The competition for starting spots, combined with his efforts not resulting in goalscoring output, eventually lead to Pohang and Kvesić parting ways. The club terminated his contract on January 4, 2022, which opened the door for him to rejoin NK Olimpija.
It's very easy to get caught up in the "what could have been?" of Kvesić's time at Pohang. His 12 goals and 8 assists this season could have made a big difference in the 2021 season, in which the Steelers finished 9th in K League 1, just three points above the relegation zone.
His time wearing the club's black and red stripes had ups and downs, with some moments of disappointment and some of delight. In hindsight, it is clear to see that Kvesić, and Tashchy for that matter, did not fit into the team's tactics as well as the likes of those that they were meant to replace. What matters now is that he's moved on to bigger things.
It can be said that both parties have walked away in better shape. Two years later, Pohang are unbeaten in K League 1 with Grant, Wanderson, Zeca and Oberdan as their foreign players. Meanwhile, Kvesić and NK Olimpija will play in the first qualifying round of the 2023-2024 UEFA Champions League, a year after falling short in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Europa Conference League.